The Pearl Fishers Duet

Bizet’s opera, Les pêcheurs de perles, is gradually creeping into the operatic mainstream. The composer was only 25 when he wrote the work; it was not a great success; but it’s hung around the periphery of the standard repertory for almost a century and a half. The Santa Fe Opera will stage it this summer as will the Opéra-Comique. The tenor-baritone duet (‘Au fond du temple saint’) has always been  regularly performed. Its most famous version is likely that recorded by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill in 1950. It was originally released on a 10″ vinyl record. I still have it in some forgotten recess. It took a while for it to make the impact it now has, but after a decade or so it was recognized as one of the greatest performances set to disc. Every one loves it. The reason is simple two glorious voices singing a beautiful tune.  It’s never been out of print; anyone remotely interested in opera should have it and the other duets the two recorded. This is the standard that every other rendition is judged. Björling Merrill Au fond du temple saint. Björling and Merrill were very close friends. They were odd combination. A baseball loving Brooklyn Jew and an alcohol prone golden voiced Swede. Björling’s wife in her biography of the tenor recounts how Merrill would retrieve Jussi when he was on a bender in New York.

The Björling-Merrill version is cut. Here is the complete duet recorded in performance by Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Kaufmann sings with great control and sensitivity, but his dusky sound can’t match the molten gold that Björling had. However that’s no knock, who could match that unique voice? Hvorostovsky is in great form and sounds just about as good as a baritone can. Kaufmann Hvorostovsky Au fond du temple saint

Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel sang the duet at James Levine’s 25th Anniversary Gala at the Met (1996). Alagna is in fresh voice not yet showing the signs of vocal overuse that characterizes his more recent work. Terfel sounds beautiful as always. Alagna Terfel Au fond du temple siantThe Pear Fishers

Here’s another abridged version of the piece. Enrico Caruso and Mario Ancona recorded it in 1907. Through the haze and noise of more than a century Caruso’s glorious voice can still be glimpsed. The great tenor sang the role at the Met three times in 1916. He sang the role in French, but this recording is in Italian. Caruso Ancona Del tempio al limita. The photograph suggests that a seat behind a post might have been worth a premium price.

Finally, here are another two voices that can stand up to most comparisons. This recording by Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes was made in 1971 and finds both artists at their refulgent best. Domingo Milnes Au fond du temple saint.

The words to the duet are below in French and English.

Au fond du temple saint
Paré de fleurs et d’or,
Une femme apparaît!
Je crois la voir encore!
Une femme apparaît!
Je crois la voir encore!

La foule prosternée
La regarde, etonnée,
Et murmure tous bas:
Voyez, c’est la déesse!
Qui dans l’ombre se dresse
Et vers nous tend les bras!

Son voile se soulève!
Ô vision! ô rêve!
La foule est à genoux!

Oui, c’est elle!
C’est la déesse
plus charmante et plus belle!
Oui, c’est elle!
C’est la déesse
qui descend parmi nous!
Son voile se soulève et la foule est à genoux!

Mais à travers la foule
Elle s’ouvre un passage!
Son long voile déjà
Nous cache son visage!
Mon regard, hélas!
La cherche en vain!

Elle fuit!
Elle fuit!

Mais dans mon âme soudain
Quelle étrange ardeur s’allume!
Quel feu nouveau me consume!
Ta main repousse ma main!
Ta main repousse ma main!
De nos cśurs l’amour s’empare
Et nous change en ennemis!
Non, que rien ne nous sépare!
Non, rien!
Que rien ne nous sépare!
Non, rien!
Jurons de rester amis!
Jurons de rester amis!
Jurons de rester amis!
Oh oui, jurons de rester amis!

Oui, c’est elle! C’est la déesse!
En ce jour qui vient nous unir,
Et fidèle à ma promesse,
Comme un frère je veux te chérir!
C’est elle, c’est la déesse
Qui vient en ce jour nous unir!
Oui, partageons le même sort,
Soyons unis jusqu’à la mort!

At the back of the holy temple,
decorated with flowers and gold,
A woman appears!
A woman appears!
I can still see her!
I can still see her!

The prostrate crowd
looks at her amazed
and murmurs under its breath:
look, this is the goddess
looming up in the shadow
and holding out her arms to us.

Her veil parts slightly.
What a vision! What a dream!
The crowd is kneeling.

Yes, it is she!
It is the goddess,
more charming and more beautiful.
Yes, it is she!
It is the goddess
who has come down among us.
Her veil has parted and the crowd is kneeling.

But through the crowd
she makes her way.
Already her long veil
hides her face from us.
My eyes, alas!
Seek her in vain!
She flees!
She flees!

But what is this strange flame
which is suddenly kindled in my soul!
What unknown fire is destroying me?
Your hand pushes mine away!
Your hand pushes mine away!
Love takes our hearts by storm
and turns us into enemies!
No, let nothing part us!
No, nothing!
Let nothing part us!
No, nothing!
Let us swear to remain friends!
Let us swear to remain friends!
Let us swear to remain friends!
Oh yes, let us swear to remain friends!

Yes, it is her, the goddess,
who comes to unite us this day.
And, faithful to my promise,
I wish to cherish you like a brother!
It is her, the goddess,
who comes to unite us this day!
Yes, let us share the same fate,
let us be united until death!